Operation Beggar or Turkey Buzzard (3 June-7 July 1943) was a series of long distance flights to tow Horsa gliders from Britain to North Africa, where they were to take part in the invasion of Sicily.
A series of airborne operations were built into the planning for the invasion of Sicily. On the Eighth Army front the aim was to capture key bridges between the landing zone and Syracuse to prevent Axis troops destroying them. A sizable force of the American WACO glider had been built up in North Africa, but these weren’t big enough to carry an anti-tank or artillery gun and its associated jeep in a single load. As a result they would have to travel in two gliders, and were unlikely to land close enough together to be useful. The obvious solution was to use the larger Horsa glider, but these were all in Britain, and there wasn’t enough time to ship them out to North Africa.
The main problem with this plan was that it required a flight of around 1,350 miles, 50% more than the maximum tow range at the time. It would also require a flight across the Bay of Biscay, an area patrolled by German aircraft. The War Office was sceptical, but the 1st Airborne Division insisted that it needed the gliders, and so No.38 Wing was given the task of working out if it was possible. The flight required three legs. The first would cover the 1,350 miles from the south-west of England to Sale in Morocco. This would be followed by a 350 mile flight across the desert to Froha, and finally a 580 mile flight at 7,000ft over the Atlas Mountains to reach Kairouan in Tunisia.
The first task was to find a tug that could actually reach North Africa. Trials were carried out with a handful of Halifaxs that had just been transferred to No.295 Squadron. These aircraft were matched up with Horsas from No.1 Squadron, Glider Pilot Regiment. A series of test flights were carried out around the British coast. These revealed that the long distance flights could cause unusual problems in the Halifax. Extra fuel tanks also had to be installed in the bomb bays. The Horsa came with a detachable undercarriage, and could land on a skid under the fuselage. In normal delivery missions the undercarriage might actually be retained, but in this case it would be dropped soon after take off to reduce drag, and a spare set carried inside the glider for use in North Africa. The gliders were also given a mechanism to allow them to tell what vertical position they were in relative to their tug at night or in poor visibility, known as the ‘Angle of Dangle’ indicator. In order to achieve the long ranges required the glider needed to be an a ‘high tow’ position above the tug.
The training period wasn’t without its cost. Two of the long range flights had to be aborted and the gliders made emergency landings. On 16 May a combination of tug and glider crashed close to base, with the loss of the four man crew of the Halifax and the three glider pilots in the Horsa.
The actual operation was to begin at RAF Portreath in Cornwall, the most south-western RAF field. The eventual aim of the operation was to get 21 Horsas and 10 Halifaxes to North Africa in time to take part in the invasion of Sicily.
The first four combinations (the name for the pairing of a glider and tug, code named ‘Turkey Buzzard’) were place at Portreath on 25 May 1943, but bad weather then delayed the first mission. The operation finally got underway early on 3 June 1943, with mixed results. The first combination took off at 0800 but ran into mist and fog. The tug crew spent hours trying to find a way through the fog, but eventually had to admit defeat and turn back. They returned to base after a flight of 7 hours, 30 minutes.
The second combination also ran into fog, and the glider crew were soon struggling to keep the correct position compared to the tug. Eventually the tow rope snapped, and the glider ditched. The tug realised that the glider had gone, and reported its exact location. Coastal Command sent a Sunderland to try and rescue them, but the sea was too choppy, and they had to wait for twelve hours before the frigate HMS Teviot picked them up.
The third combination ran into an immediate problem when the undercarriage was jettisoned too soon and got caught up in the underside of the wing, making it much harder for the glider pilots to keep their aircraft on course. There was also a danger that the parachute attacked to the undercarriage might deploy on landing, causing a crash. When the glider landed at Sale this was exactly what happened, but the aircraft survived with only minor damage.
The fourth combination had a less stressful flight, and the glider made a textbook landing.
Although only two of the four gliders had reached North Africa, this was considered to be enough of a success to allow the operation to continue. A number of the Turkey Buzzard combinations came under German attack, including one flown by the crew of the second combination in the first mission. Eventually the tug had to release the glider to give it a chance to escape. Once again the crew had to ditch, but this time they weren’t rescued for eleven days, when they were finally picked up by a Spanish fishing boat. They were taken to safety, and eventually reached Gibraltar, from where they flew home.
By 16 June eighteen Horsas had reached Sale. That rose to 25 by 30 June and 27 by 7 July, more than enough to carry out the planned airborne operations.
Eight Horsas were used in Operation Ladbroke. Of these five successfully reached Sicily, one landed in the sea and two were unaccounted for. Sadly two of the gliders that did reach land caught fire, with the loss of all but three men from the first and fourteen dead in the second.
Eleven Horsas were used in Operation Fustian. This time two were unaccounted for and the rest reached Sicily. Some landed fairly close to the landing zone, others several miles away. Not all of the heavy equipment could be retrieved, and the time it took varied dramatically, with one gun and jeep extracted in 30 minutes, and another taking nine hours!